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Knockemstiff

Review

Knockemstiff

I
live approximately 80 miles away from Knockemstiff, Ohio.
It’s little more than a ghost town sitting just southwest of
Chillicothe, a small city near the northern border of Ohio’s
section of Appalachia. There was a point in my checkered career
when, for nine years or so, I regularly made trips to southern Ohio
and dealt with individuals such as those who populate the pages of
KNOCKEMSTIFF, Donald Ray Pollock’s collection of masterful,
haunting short stories. I always told myself that I should write a
book about the people I met and the incidents I experienced.
Pollock though has beaten me to it, and has done a better job than
I ever could have.

The residents of KNOCKEMSTIFF, at least as described in
Pollock’s stories, stumble through a hardscrabble existence
preoccupied with fulfilling the needs and satisfying the impulses
of the moment. It is a place where entitlement to a regular
government check is an element of attraction when choosing a mate,
a point on the map where bad decisions and nasty happenstance meet
and create poverty, their bastard stepchild.

Pollock’s descriptions of people and events here are
unflinching; there is a dark humor that informs his work, but it is
the soft kiss that precedes the bare-knuckled punch. His stories
are by turns subtle and brutally straightforward. One containing
stark, sharp elements of both is “Assailants.” Del and
Geraldine have a child together, which makes one shudder. Del is an
alcoholic prone to embarrassing behavior during blackouts, while
Geraldine is fresh out of a group home. Pollock paints a
matter-of-fact picture of Del changing the baby with the last
diaper in the box and then stealthily raiding her college fund ---
begun by Geraldine --- to buy beer (not diapers) at the local
carry-out. One wants to reach through the pages of KNOCKEMSTIFF and
throttle him; it is a simple scene, but one that stays in the
mind.

The relationship between parent and child is played out with
poignant and painful frequency throughout the selections in
KNOCKEMSTIFF. “I Start Over” is another story that
haunts, taking place for the most part in a drive-through line at a
Dairy Queen, where Big Bernie Givens, self-described as
“stuck in southern Ohio like the smile on a dead
clown’s [butt],” finds his own bad decisions and those
of others --- particularly his son’s --- coming to a sudden
and unexpected head.

Knockemstiff is a desolate place where hope springs eternal just
before being trampled underfoot by those who behold it. It is a
place where illicit commerce, subtle and otherwise, is done in a
local donut shop, where blood plasma is the stuff of commerce,
where those who escape, as in “Hair’s Fate,”
simply go from bad to worse. The only “winner,” if you
will, is the monster who we meet in “Dynamite Hole,”
who manages to play the system with an innate canniness that is
ultimately frightening.

Pollock has been compared favorably to Chuck Palahniuk and Harry
Crews (I would add the late Larry Brown to the list). His tour of
Knockemstiff is unforgettable, funny, frightening, depressing and
enlightening. And one senses he has only begun to scratch the
surface of the stories he can tell.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Knockemstiff
by Donald Ray Pollock

  • Publication Date: March 18, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385523823
  • ISBN-13: 9780385523820